Poem: Mr. Either/Or
Poet: Aaron Poochigian
Disclaimer: I know the author, who kindly sent me a copy to review. The book can be pre-ordered here.
Aaron Poochigian’s new verse novel, Mr. Either/Or, is a great deal of fun. That is its most apparent feature on first impact and its most important feature on completion.
The book tells the story of F.B.I. agent Zach Berzinski, who saves first the United States, then the world, with the help of the art historian Li-Ling Levine. These two endeavors occupy, respectively, the first three and last four chapters. Each is based around a strange supernatural or sci-fi intrusion into the world: Chinese ghosts to begin, and lizard people to conclude. So far as I could tell, they were not particularly unified, except that they happened in quick succession, and both involved Zach and Li-ling. Indeed, after the first escapade is resolved, the second begins:
Sorry to butt in while you’re making out
with Ms. Levine, but there’s a second myth
that’s out there spoiling to be reckoned with. (p. 99)
And that’s how it feels: there is the first myth (and associated adventure), and then there is the second. But this isn’t a criticism. It is a feature of the book’s world that it contains multitudes (in a sense other than Whitman’s), that it is madcap and plural. The driving force of the book is action and excitement, and it bulges at the seams to accommodate it. That’s as it should be.
Formally, Mr. Either/Or is written in chapters of both rhymed iambic pentameter (with no regular rhyme scheme) and alliterative accentual tetrameter (the Beowulf meter). While the division is not absolute, the rhymed pentameter dominates in expository scenes, the tetrameter in action scenes. And this makes sense, allowing the exposition to expand somewhat languidly (though, in an impressive feat, with a rhythm and pace that is somehow simultaneously brisk), while the action comes in short, sharp bursts. The contrast is also beneficial simply for introducing variation: both forms can trend toward the “too much” (especially given other features of Poochigian’s style, discussed below), and the variation helps keep the book from overstaying its welcome. (Minor gripe about formatting: the alliterative tetrameter splays the caesura across line breaks. I would’ve preferred to see a more compact presentation.)
Despite the form of the book ranging from the old-fashioned (rhymed pentameter) to the really old-fashioned (again, the Beowulf meter), in tone it is relentlessly contemporary. Here, for instance, are a few lines from early in the book, which give a good sense of the whole:
Your cell starts bellowing as if on cue,
and the ringtone, the theme to Peter Gunn,
can only mean Director “Uh Oh” One,
your handler since you signed for Covert Ops.
“Talk to me, maestro mio. What’s the word?” (p. 20)
Elsewhere, Poochigian somehow manages to wrestle a surprising amount of pathos out of the phrase “because you suck” (p. 136), though I can’t explain how he does it without spoilers. See for yourself.
Poochigian has a knack for off-beat descriptions, which are a main source of the fun. For instance, when a minor character is shot through the head, “brains Rorschach the wall” (p. 26), and later a character is outside in the “pigeon-squalid dawn” (p. 136). Here again he shows his ability to generate pathos in surprising places:
Brick drips like coffee. Traffic signals droop
their heavy heads, and molten roads like soup
absorb them. (p. 53)
Last in this list of the book’s major virtues comes the narrator, who is clearly enjoying the story as much as (perhaps even more than) the reader. He goads and encourages the hero:
Suck it up, killer. Grab the stupid gun;
assassinate compassion. Once you’ve won,
you can repent and wimp out of the Bureau. (p. 57)
The narrator takes seriously his role as a guide to the story, quite explicitly picking the good bits for us:
[…] quaint metaphysics by a nameless sage.
The Dragon and the Phoenix, he maintains,
are Fire-fathered twins, and Time, their mother,
rouses them every hundred thousand years
to feud until they neutralize each other.
The guy is really good on how it’s done:
… just after dawn, a lizard grimace rears […] (p. 69)
And he is lastly, a communist, which allows him to needle the hero’s rather uncritical service of government interests. Importantly, this happens in a loving spirit. It is never mean: we never lose the sense that the narrator really is rooting for the guy.
The book’s vices are the flip side of its virtues. So, for instance, the search for clever and unexpected descriptions can go too far, as when a drug-induced sensation of rising through a fog is described as “forgetting Newton’s laws” (p. 52), a gratuitous touch that doesn’t bring the image into clearer focus—a gloss without purpose.
The quirky descriptions can also intersect badly with the demand for alliteration in the tetrameter, as in the humorous but ultimately somewhat painful second line of, “you’re spy enough | to know never / bring babe-baggage | on Bureau business” (p. 92).
Virtue becomes vice in the case of the narrator as well. For the most part, the narrator’s editorializing is a key element of the fun of the book. But at times the narrator editorializes too much, as in sections 3.2-3.4, where the members of a sewer-dwelling cult come in for repeated astonishment on the part of the narrator as to just how crazy their beliefs are. Which, to be fair, they are, but I don’t need to be told that again and again. As one of Poochigian’s characters might say, “like, I get it, man, chill out.”
Finally, I can’t help but note the frequency with which Poochigian captures surprise or sudden occurrences with the word “whoa”. I only began to notice this in the back half of the book, so this list is likely not exhaustive:
we said our prayers, and Whoa—just past eleven (p. 99)
till Whoa! a surreal colossus of steel (p. 106)
when, Whoa!, some late-night | wastoid Wildman (p. 118)
since Whoa!, watch it, | one of your would-be (pp. 133-34)
Whuzzat? Whoa, | weight from above (p. 155)
… Whoa, consciousness. | The combat coma (p. 176)
But these flaws ultimately do not detract too much from the overall fun of the book. It is an enjoyable ride, well-paced, and rarely predictable.